Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Kimberley 1 to 12 The story in one place.

Its more fun in instalments but for the speedreaders.....

Kimberley 1. Two Words

It’s day two of our trip to the Kimberley. I’m sitting here in the apartment listening to Neil Murray sing his songs of country. ‘I am your native born….’

Andrea is calm now. Six hours ago her face was stone – a frown permanently etched on her usually smiling face. Two words, luggage and hire-car.

Kimberley 2. Luggage

The bags for our party of four have been delayed in Perth. They’ve put us on the connecting flight with a promise that our bags will arrive on the first flight the next day.

‘About nine o’clock tomorrow morning’ they call after us as we run across the tarmac towards the impatient plane, its engines roaring at us.

At Broome there is a line up of forlorn Brisbane travellers at the service desk. The attendant gives us the impression that this is not an unusual occurrence. He fishes four overnight packs for stranded passengers from a giant cardboard box sitting behind him on the floor. The Brisbane contingent will spend the night in one size fits all QANTAS issue shortie pyjamas.

‘What does your luggage look like?’ The attendant yawns us towards a large poster on the wall with depictions of typical traveller’s bags. They are all coded.

‘Isn’t it all marked and listed in your paperwork?’ Andrea has some expectation that there will be a sophisticated system to this obviously oft repeated event.

We gaze stupidly at the poster.
22A is a duffle type bag; 24 is a medium sized bag with wheels; 25 is a backpack.
‘Ours is a backpack with wheels’ we tell him.
‘Choose the closest match’ he says.

He reads back his inaccurate list: ‘one 22A, one 24, one 25A (small) and one 25B (large).’

‘And a tent in a small bag’ I add. ‘sort of fawn. Khaki.’
‘Two tone’ chips in Denis ‘orange and brown’
‘Makes khaki. If you mix them.’ I laugh at my joke.

He looks at us curiously.

‘And they’re all in the name Peel.’
‘But we’re not all Peels.’
We give him our actual names.
We turn to go, then remember ‘Oh, and when you send them to our accommodation at Moonlight Bay the booking is in the name Lynch.

We leave. It’s a balmy night. You can feel a slight chill in the sea air. June in Broome.

A taxi takes us to our apartment. The driver doesn’t bother to offer to help us with our luggage. It’s 8:30 pm. After nine hours on the road we rip open our QANTAS packs and queue for the shower with our baby tubes of toothpaste and our single shower sachets of shampoo.

Our first experience of Broome is a ten minute walk into what we imagine is the centre of the town. Chinatown, on the waterfront. We can’t quite get our bearings. We pass a noisy cluster of corrugated iron buildings on our way. It’s the only sign of life. Chinatown is dark and largely deserted with no sign of water. It doesn’t feel right. We were expecting the main street of a country town. This feels like a movie set. We manage to find a Thai restaurant opposite a bottle shop. The bottle shop is doing a bit of trade. We have a surprisingly good meal and the first two bottles of wine of the trip. We need them.

Back at Moonlight Bay we’re too whacked to peruse all the brochures strewn on the coffee table and elect to have a QANTAS fashion parade to celebrate our arrival. It’s a pretty ugly affair. Grey cotton elastic waisted shorts and grey t-shirts; tops and bottoms sporting the flying kangaroo in red. Australia is in big trouble if this becomes our national dress.

None of us looks good in grey. No one looks good in grey.

Kimberley 3 Idiots

It’s early afternoon. The phone at the QANTAS Service Desk rings out. Pauline calls Perth. There’s been a delay. Bad weather. The plane should be in around 2pm.

At 2:40 Pauline phones the Service Desk. We’ve starting to get jittery about a second night in our gray issue PJs. They answer.

‘There’s been a mix-up’ says the voice sleepy with afternoon tropical exhaustion. ‘Apparently your bags were left in Brisbane.’

Pauline explodes. She gives them a serve. We’re cheering in the background. ‘I can’t believe that QANTAS, the national carrier could be so incompetent etc etc’

‘Hang on’ says the noew alert voice. ‘No. No.’ a voice in the background is giving an excited commentary. ‘I’ve just been told they’re here. Yes. Right behind me.’

The rest of us garner this information from the roll of Pauline’s eyes and her wild sign language.
‘They were there all the time, the idiots.’

Silence from Pauline. Silence from the Service Desk. It’s not a stalemate. It’s I’m speechless from Pauline and I can’t think of what to say next from sleepy voice. It appears that QANTAS has also outsourced intelligence.

We all get dressed in our gray QANTAS gear to greet the arrival of our luggage. Steve goes into role. Pulls his shorties up under his armpits, stumbles down the stairs like a drunk and greets the cab driver and the neighbourhood in a too loud voice. ‘Hello everybody.’ He bounces forward pushing the others out of the way, sticks his head through the open passenger window and asks: ‘Have these come all the way from Brisbane?’ And he recites the inaccurate list of identification numbers checking off each bag in turn. ‘I can help if you like?’ Steve has had a sudden relapse into his former life as a clown.

The staff at the check-in desk of the apartment complex don’t seem to share our sense of humour.

Kimberley 4 Hire-car

Two men in grey QANTAS T-shirts are talking to Renee about the 4WD camper they’re here to pick up.

‘It’s the black Hummer’ she says
The large ebony vehicle glinting in the sunlight and packed full of camping gear stares back at the three of them. Denis and Steve exchange looks. They were expecting a white Toyota Land Cruiser. ‘It’s not what I was expecting’ I mumble.

‘There’s two six person tents there’ continues Renee. My heartb3eat starts to pick up. Not from excitement. Fuck. They’ve supplied enough tents to house a small army but none of the creature comforts illustrated on their website. Andrea will spew.
I’m happy to go to Broome as long as it’s not a bloody boot camp.’ Her words ring in my ears.

‘It’s brand new’ calls her offsider from inside the shed.
‘Don’t know why they bought a black one. Everyone knows they show every scratch.’ I wonder if Renee is trying to be helpful. She doesn’t seem like the nasty type.
‘Stupid colour’ confirms Tim.

‘There’s been a change of owner in Brisbane’ she tells us. ‘It’s a mess’ they’ve been moving cars all round the country to cover their bookings.’

‘Some of em on backs of trucks’ chips in Tim. ‘This one came up from Perth couple a days ago.

’ But it’s not what we ordered’ I repeat.

‘It’s almost new’ repeats Tim. ‘You’re bloody lucky. You should se some of the cars this lot send us. Useless.’

We don’t have a lot of options. The girls are at the supermarket getting supplies ready to load up the land cruiser they’re expecting. We follow renee into the office and dutifully ask a few questions about insurance and conditions of hire while resignedly initialling every page of a document which would do if we were taking out a lease on Kirribilly House. Every black scratch is listed on the condition report.

‘The tents are on the roof ‘ Tim tells us. ‘and four stretchers, four chairs, a table’
Everything is big. Feels like were moving house.

‘The tents are those new ones’ renee says excitement in her voice. ‘the poles just pop up into shape as you set them up. Clickety click.’ She adds.

In the boot is a giant esky and four more of everything contained in four large plastic crates, or spilling over into the back seat. It’s chock-a-block.

We get a call from the girls. ‘Pick us up from Coles. We’re
almost done.’ I look at Denis. He looks at me. We both raise our eyebrows thinking the same thing. There’s no room for food, let alone our travelling gear sitting on the veranda back at Moonlight Bay.

‘One thing says Tim. ‘Don’t on any account leave your keys in the car and then close the doors.’ Pause. ‘The Hummer automatically locks you out. Some kind of security system.’ He says seriously. ‘I’ve done it once already. Lucky I had the window down. Last renter lost the spare key.’ He explains. Denis ands I exchange raised eyebrows across the bonnet.

‘When you get back, tell us how this thing works.’ says Tim casually indicating the multitude of dials and knobs on the dashboard. By now Denis and my eyebrows are just jumping up and down, twitching in disbelief. Shit. Andrea is going to spew. She hates surprises.

‘Call us if you need anything.’ says Tim as if he cares. We climb into the black cabin with its dark tinted windows and its bullet proof metal frame and inspect the array of options facing us . feeling like a pair of virgins we carefully reverse from the storage shed intent on avoiding the embarrassment of having our first accident in the carpark.
Shit, it’s a big monster.
‘But you’ll need to call Brisbane if anything goes wrong’ calls Renee as her parting reassurance.

Kimberley 5 Supermarket

In the supermarket the girls have a Hummer load of groceries piled high in their trolley.

‘Shit’ I think.
‘No room for food’ I joke.

They stare at me darkly, add another bag of oranges and send me off to get a second packet of Vita Brits.

I’m getting nervous. I make eye contact with Denis – but there is no eyebrow raising this time, just two pairs of staring eyes.

At the car we swing open the back door.. ‘Where are we going to put our stuff?’ asks Andrea.

‘We’ll be fine’ I reassure her. ‘Denis and I are expert packers’.

The car appears full, it’s true. We have 6 bags of groceries, four backpacks, four day packs and another tent to come. We decide to pack in the morning.

A meal at Matso’s, two bottles of wine, a whiskey each is followed by a sleep ruptured by dreams of packing solutions and retribution.

It’s a foggy morning next day. Unusual for Broome. It’s an omen. But of what.

Over breakfast we realise we need to add pillows to our list. And a toaster. We may have to choose.

Kimberley 6 Stretchers

The Hummer hums. We head north to Cape Leveque, 200 kilometres up the Dampier Peninsular.

We’re novices in the 4WD business so we take it easy. Plumes of dust envelop us as we pass vehicles returning from this one way in and out red strip of road.

Beagle Bay community would have made a nice stop for lunch but we miss the turn off.

In just over three hours we’re checking in at the Cape. The lighthouse sits on top of a short rise overlooking the campground. We’re directed to tent site number six.

We need to know where the sun will rise so we can orient the tents for the next day. The Hummer has a compass readout on the rear vision mirror so we’ll always know approximately where we might be. It only does the compass points by quadrants so we do some guesswork and set out the tents to maximise where shade might be throughout the day. Then we unpack.

We’ve left one of the maxi six person tents behind preferring to use the bambino tent Denis and Pauline have brought along as our second. Time and space are our key criteria.

‘Time us will ya’ I call to Pauline. It’s 12:15pm.

It takes us until 1:15 to set up both tents, one of which we’ve never seen before. Renee’s magic ‘clickety click’ assurances are way off the mark. But we’re pleased with our first attempt.

The girls have dragged out the camping table and six green eco friendly bags of food lie scattered across the sandy site. They’ve made some sandwiches and a cup of tea on the gas stove. Denis and I are filthy. We have red dust in every orifice. We all sit around the table and survey our home for the next three nights. ‘Clickety click’ – we toast ourselves and Renee on completion of our first stage.

Thirty minutes later we set to work on putting the stretchers together. As we bang them into a bed shape I’m thinking ‘fuck they’re big’. Long and wide. You could sleep two in these comfortably. When we have four set up all I can see is an ocean of canvas. They take up the whole campsite.

Then the fun begins. It’s clear they’re not going to fit into the bambino. We’ll all have to sleep in the big house I muse. We’re all secretly trying to imagine how that might work.

We carry one of the giants into the tent and discover it fits. That’s a win. Unfortunately it’s so fucking big there’s no way a second can follow.

Unwilling to accept defeat Denis and I ignore the wailing in the background and assure the distraught wives that we’ll sort it out.

There are two compartments in the tent. First we try turning the said stretcher sideways across the tent. It fits. But it fails to resolve our problem. It blocks access to the rear compartment. We try straddling both sections from front to back but that means we’ve lost the use of the second compartment.

‘What if we try assembling the second stretcher in the back compartment’ suggests Denis. By this time we’ve removed the first stretcher and tried carrying the second stretcher in on its side, on its back, at a forty-five degree angle, shoving it, stretching the ten to its nylon limits, all to no avail.

We begin by dismantling the stretcher and carry the pieces (there are only three) into the tight rear space. We mange to assemble it, though both of us fear permanent damage to our backs as we adopt some advanced yoga positions in order to join up the pieces (of which there are still only three).

Ultimately we accept defeat when the best we can do is achieve three legs in contact with the ground and the fourth suspended six inches above terra firma. The only other option is to cut a hole in the brand new tent to allow the final leg to find the ground.

We’re tempted. The thought of having to explain this to Tim and Renee causes us to pause.

Denis and I look at each other. Resigned to our fate we emerge from the tent stretcher carried between us to face the music. I’m fuming.

‘I’m going to call Tim. This is fucking ridiculous.’

It’s not your fault’ Andrea offers reassuringly.

And I’m not sure it’s Tim’s either but I march off to the phone to abuse whoever answers my call.

Kimberley 7 Tim

3 pm. Tim’s phone rings out. Just as well. I have time to calm myself.
Eventually a girl’s voice answers. It’s not Renee. It’s a young backpacker’s voice but she’s smart enough to read the emotion in my voice.

‘Tim. It’s for you.’

‘Hi Tim. It’s Steve here. Hummer Steve. Remember? Yeah the cars running well.’ I’m practicing my calm voice. ‘But the tent situation is a f…ing disaster.’

I tell him the whole story. Upside down, inside out, dissemble, reassemble. I’m not about to let him be unclear about our predicament.

‘Someone had better sort this out’ I tell him ‘cos sleeping under the stars is beautiful but not worth the premium price we’re paying for the Hummer plus camping package.

‘I’ll check with Rennie’ he says. Rennie? Is there a Renee and a Rennie? Is he trying to do my head in. I suppress the conspiracy theory growing in my head.

I suggest airbeds instead of stretchers. He agrees, surprisingly enthusiastically.

‘Can you get them to us at Cape Leveque tomorrow somehow?’ He is suddenly less enthusiastic.

‘I’ll have to call Brisbane’ he informs me and promises to get back to me in the next hour.

It’s 4 pm and I haven’t heard from Tim (or Rennie or Renee). I call Tim’s number. It’s engaged. I walk once around the campground. I call again. Engaged. I report back to the silent team on the lack of progress. Andrea has taken to one of the beds. The third time Tim answers.

Tim is less chatty this time. He tells me the boss from Brisbane will call me.

My mission to negotiate a solution by sundown is looking very unlikely. I report to the team. We waste a lot of energy trying to second guess the Brisbane boss and finally agree to the inevitable. We’ll sleep out tonight.

We now work hard at finding the silver lining. What a stroke of luck. Without this we would never have chosen to do this. How romantic. Under the stars. Full moon.

Andrea spoils the mounting euphoria by pointing out that we’ve now taken four and a half hours to set up camp. Denis and I claim it as a new world record. We’ll call the Guinness book of records tomorrow.

Pauline giggles. Denis rolls his eyes. Andrea says she’s going to lie down. She has a choice of inside or outside. What luxury.

Kimberley 8 Vinnie

‘Hello. It’s Steve here. I’m the bloke with the Hummer. Can I speak to the manager please?’

‘He’s in a meeting. Can he call you back in five minutes?’

‘Hello. It’s the Hummer bloke in Broome here. Can I speak to the manager please?’

‘He’s in a ….’

‘I know. You said he’d call back. That was 30 minutes ago.’

‘He’s busy in…’

‘I know.’

‘He’ll be out in about 45 minutes. Can I get him to call you?’

‘No! I want to speak to him now. There are four of us here sleeping rough in the bush. I want this sorted out now.’

‘One moment. I’ll see if he can be interrupted.’


‘Hi.’ I say in a false light voice. ‘It’s Vinnie isn’t it? Vinnie, I’m the bloke with the Hummer. I’ve got a problem.’

Vinnie doesn’t wait for my tale of woe. He launches into a passionate endorsement of himself. How he’d recently bought the business; how he didn’t have to honour previous bookings; how he was doing us a favour; how he’d gone to a lot of trouble to set us up well with gear; how great a car the Hummer was; what a mugs game it was to be in the camper rental business; how ours was the last renter he was ever doing which included camping gear; how lucky we were and how you can never make people happy.

‘Customers always find something to whinge about.’

I listened to all this in amazement. This man had just purchased a nationwide car rental business and he hated customers. What had he been thinking!

I took a deep breath. I reminded him that that I was one of his unhappy customers and yes, that I did have something to whinge about. I was still in possession of four oversized stretchers which some dickhead had never thought to measure against the tent they were meant to fit in!

I didn’t wait for him to find a solution. I had one.

‘We’d like two inflatable mattresses to replace the stretchers’

What a simple solution.

Vinnie now launched into a tirade about how he never used inflatables. How people brought them back in appalling conditions. Why stretchers were the only option.

This was a very long speech. Didn’t he have a meeting to get back to?

‘We’d prefer inflatables Vinnie. But you solve our problem and we’ll be happy.’

I didn’t tell him that we’d left one of his giant tents back in Broome. I didn’t tell him our second tent was a baby hiking tent. I knew that no stretchers were ever going to fit into that tiny space, but decided not to complicate things and agreed to exchange the giant stretchers for small stretchers at the Kimberley Camping Store when we passed through Broome on the Friday.

I decided to call everyone to make sure they all understood their role in this next instalment.

Kimberley 9 Tom

Tom turned out to be my contact at the Kimberley Camping Store. He seemed to be in charge. He remembered the order. ‘

Yep. Really! They don’t fit? Oh yeah, I did Vinnie a good deal with those stretchers. They were cheaper than the small ones.’

‘But they don’t fit Tom.’


I gave a brief summary of the Vinnie conversation minus the tirade. Tom sounded understanding so I calmed the storm building in me and asked him to check what stretchers they had in stock and their dimensions.

‘What'll we do Tom? Can we do a straight exchange? Only slept on once or twice Tom. Good as new.’

‘If you give them a wipe down I’ll put them back on the racks and sell ‘em no questions asked.’ Tom was also happy to give me some prices and sizes of inflatables as our other possible option.

‘Put the stretchers and a couple of air beds aside will you Tom? We’ll sort it out on Friday.’

‘It’s all sorted’ I told the team.

‘Are we getting inflatables?’ Andrea asked pointedly.

‘Well … no. Probably not.’

‘Why not? That’s what we want.’ She went on.

I took another in a long line of deep breaths, tucked my frustration away behind my sunglasses and told her: ‘Vinnie said! But we can buy one ourselves to fit the small tent.’ I added.

‘Why? That’s not our problem. He should pay for that.’ The terrier in Andrea wasn’t going to let this go easily. She had Vinnie gripped tightly in her terrier teeth and didn’t seem to notice that Vinnie had me in his. I started to shake a little. My jaw muscles were locked tight with tension. My eyeballs were fixed like concrete. ‘CAN WE JUST DO WHAT WE NEED TO DO TO MAKE THIS HOLIDAY WORK.! I AM MERELY THE MESSENGER.’ Said one word at a time through firmly gritted teeth.

Kimberley 10 Kimberley Camp Store

Tom was younger than I expected.

‘Hi, I’m here about the stretchers’ I greeted him with unjustified familiarity.

‘Oh Yeah. The Hummer bloke’ Tom responded good humouredly. ‘I’ve got them out the back’

Tom produced four stretchers in their bags and two inflatable mattresses. He’d kept his word. We insisted on unpacking them and setting them up in the car park.

‘Do you reckon they’ll fit?’ I queried Denis.

He looked back at me. Short of setting up the tent in the forecourt of the camping store neither of us could be sure. They looked smaller. I conjured up a picture of the tent in my head and another of me trying to fit two of these stretchers in where only one fitted previously. Without much conjuring I was also able to picture Andrea’s response if this turned out to be false. This second image came with a soundtrack. Shit I thought.

I turned to Denis, shrugged and told Tom we’d take them – but we really only wanted two.

‘We’ll take the double inflatable instead of the other two’ I told him.

We threw the stretchers in the back of the Hummer and followed Tom into the shop.

‘We need a few other things’ I said as we headed for the back of the store. A replacement bag for one of the sleeping bags, a set of mantles for the gas lantern, a tie-down for the jerry can Tim had lent us, (‘brand new’ Tim had told us ‘don’t lose it’ – come on Tim, since when do brand new cans have rusted bases. Tim was turning out to be an inveterate liar and not very convincing bullshit artist), a spout for the jerry can.

And as an afterthought a map of the Kimberley.

Kimberley 11 Tom and the beetroot

Back at the till Tom was busy with another customer.

One of his offsiders stepped in. We told him the stretcher story.

‘We’re returning four stretchers and taking two in exchange. Vinnie will pay for the stretchers, we’ll pay for the rest’ we insisted.

Tom was called over. ‘We can’t put used stretchers back on the shelf to sell as new.’ He directed this information at Denis and I. ‘Tom said it’s be okay.' we smiled innocently.

‘What the f…k is this about?’ This time Tom got the spray from his, by now, beetroot faced boss. ‘You and me. In the office. Later.’ He began punching the keys of the register seeing Tom’s face in every letter and number.

‘Sorry’ I mouthed to Tom.

‘I don’t want to cause trouble but if we’d had the right sized stretchers in the first place…’ I sensed that this piece of advice was not helping me or Tom. I shut up. Tom fell silent. Beetroot face continued wrestling with the register, calculating a refund on the maxi stretchers, adding in the cost of the two replacements, and then punching in the mattress, the spout, sleeping bag cover, mantles and strap. We watched as the pressure valve inside his head crept slowly towards its limit.

‘There’s nothing to pay’

Denis and I stared at him, looked at each other and didn’t argue. He’d charged everything to Vinnie and it had evened out. Four maxi stretchers equalled two mini stretchers, an inflatable double mattress and a counter full of other stuff. Amazing. I was tempted to ask to see the docket but something in Denis’ eyes caused me to pause. The thrill of an imminent explosion was enticing but…

‘Okay’ we chorused.

Denis and I, aware that Vinnie was about to receive a fax in his Brisbane office, took the opportunity to quietly load up and exit.

‘Let’s pick up the girls and get out of town.’ 'Out of mobile range.'

Kimberley 12 Silent Companions

The girls enquired after our shopping expedition.

Hapless Tom, by now the only unemployed camp store assistant in Broome, became the centre of his own story.

We left the Vinnie bit until last hoping it would pass unnoticed. Of course it didn’t and Vinnie the vampire travelled with us for the next two hours, a silent fifth passenger in our tight knit team. Luckily we were heading up the Gibb River Road, 1000 kilometres of remote corrugated dirt. We wouldn’t have mobile coverage from Derby to Kununurra.

Each night as we set up our tents, inflated our double mattress and squeezed our two stretchers into the Eco 6 tent we had the company of the full entourage: Trouble shootin Tim, Clickety Click Renee, Recently unemployed Tom, Beetroot Face and Vinnie the problem solver.

We slept like babies.

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